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New arrests and threats as pressure increases on Rasht Christians

New arrests and threats as pressure increases on Rasht Christians

Left to right: Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh.

Three Christian converts were arrested last night in the northern city of Rasht, in the latest blow to the beleaguered Christian community there.

Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh were arrested at around 10pm – two at a house-church meeting, and another at his home – and are now being held in an unknown location.

The small community of Christian converts in Rasht has been affected perhaps more than any other in Iran in recent years, with 11 local Christians currently serving long prison sentences, another living in internal exile, and a further four facing a combined 13 years in prison.

Meanwhile, in the past few weeks nine of the Rasht Christians held in Tehran’s Evin Prison have been threatened with enforced transfers to a different prison, and told they’ll have to pay for their own transportation there.

One of them, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, has already been transferred after a short furlough, and is now in Anzali.

And although the prison in Anzali is much closer to home and would therefore have been a preferable place of detention in the first place, two of the nine Christians, Behnam Akhlaghi and Babak Hosseinzadeh, say they fear that a transfer now would make any further requests for leave or a retrial even more complicated.

Babak Hosseinzadeh (left) and Behnam Akhlaghi.

The two Christians are upset that their repeated requests for a retrial have been ignored, while they are also frustrated at being informed that their imminent transfer was about to take place, without any prior warning or conversation about the matter.

All nine Christians – also Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammad Vafadar – are serving five-year sentences for “acting against national security” because of their leadership of house-churches.

They were arrested during raids on their homes and house-churches in January and February 2019, and sentenced in October 2019; their appeals were rejected in February 2020, and those who were not already in prison by then were summoned to begin serving their sentences in June 2020.

The nine men had been helping to lead the small community of Rasht Christians in the absence of their pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, who is serving a six-year sentence (reduced from 10), and fellow leaders Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie, who is also still in prison, Mohammad Reza Omidi (now in internal exile), and Mohammad Ali Mossayebzadeh.

These four men were all originally sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Yousef and Saheb have been in Evin for more than three years.

Reflecting on the developments, Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, said: “These latest arrests show that the Iranian authorities are determined to ignore the civil and constitutional right of the Christians to assembly and worship by continued attacks on this community in Rasht, who have done nothing more than to meet together to pray and worship. 

“Babak and Behnam are entirely justified in fearing that their cases would become even more complicated should they be transferred, while their lives may also be at risk, given that in many smaller Iranian prisons there is no segregation between political prisoners like them and dangerous common criminals who may feel hostility towards Christian converts.”